by Karen Smith
An element of a good psychotherapy, the one that requires the most skill and psychological strength from the therapist, is one’s work uncovering early childhood dynamics (archaeology) that impact our daily patterns (dances).
No matter what brings folks to therapy, eventually, patterns from childhood become a centrally relevant part of the therapy. While we often wish our childhoods and original family relations were not so influential in adult functioning, we are commonly plagued by relationship dynamics we recognize as a direct response to our family of origin.
Here is an explanation through metaphor of why we repeat patterns from our families of origin and how therapy helps us change that.
By interacting with us in very specific ways, and engaging with each other in very specific ways, over and over, our parents/caretakers teach us a handful of “dances”. These dances are so deeply ingrained in our psyches, we don’t even notice what moves we are making, or that we are even engaged in a dance, much less that there are tons of other dances we could do instead.
As we enter adulthood, we do our dance—a combination of the dance each key person from childhood did with us, and the dance the adults in our lives did with each other and with others around them—and we go about to find partners who do a dance similar to ours. Then we dance with those partners, get into fights about the slight differences in our dances and slowly teach them to dance like us and us like them, until we have successfully created an eschewed version of whatever dance we had hoped we would never do again once we grew up.
Those of us who have had an intimate partner have lived the experience of feeling like our partner was perfectly matched to trigger our most primitive issues. It is this same phenomenon that results in us frequently finding ourselves in a repeating pattern with friends, bosses and peers. It is not just that we attract and are attracted to a particular type of relational dynamic; we actually build the dynamic.
In psychotherapy, a trained therapist can feel the push of our dance moves on their psyche. Rather than simply react with a complementary move, they are trained to try on the complementary dance moves inside themselves. They can reflect upon the pressure they are feeling to respond a certain way, and help us think about why we are seeking that response. Therapists can stay aware of the pressure to do our dance, and help us consider other possible dance moves until it is understood that there is a choice about what kind of dance we want to do—but only after grappling with each ingrained, assumed step.
We often come to therapy for concrete issues related to relationships, life transitions, stressful work situations or other external crises. What psychotherapy has to offer, however, is much greater. Its ultimate goals are fundamental shifts in how we see/experience/think about ourselves, our relationships and existence itself.
Karen L. Smith, MSS, LCSW, is the director of Full Living: a Psychotherapy Practice, which serves the Greater Philadelphia area. For more information, call 215-494-7818, email KarenSmith@FullLiving.com or visit FullLiving.com. October 2015.